Marissa Nichols has the kind of persona you’d expect out of a Zig Zigler or Suze Orman: positive, energetic, and up for a challenge. But when she addresses her fellow UNLV graduates as a featured speaker at commencement Saturday, her goal is to motivate them to be quietly reflective.
The former UNLV All-American softball player is adding a Ph.D. in Higher Education to her 2008 bachelor’s and 2010 master’s degrees in education. Under professors Nancy Lough and Alice Corkill, her doctoral research focused on the intersection of student-athlete performance and personal development characteristics among high and low performers.
After commencement, this high performer is heading to Boston University’s athletics department to be its first director of leadership and career development. Here, she shares what drove her into the spotlight.
On the importance of public speaking: I’ve always been inspired by thought leaders who can move others to action, or a new perspective, through their words. I knew that to be as impactful as I could in my professional career, I would need to develop this skill.
From words to action: If we want something, dwelling in the possibility is an important step in making it a reality. That said, it must be coupled with taking actionable steps. Getting to the commencement stage at UNLV started a few years back, when I made a commitment to evolving my public speaking skills.
Becoming a better speaker: Like any other craft, I found out what I needed to do to build those skills. I joined UNLV Toastmasters in 2014, an amazing student organization and group of individuals devoted to developing communication and public speaking skills. I made my first large-scale speech in front of thousands at the inaugural UNLV Creates event, which required massive courage.
Commencement discomfort: Regardless of the comfort level I’ve gained by forcing myself in these situations, public speaking is still anxiety-provoking, and I always have room to grow. This will be my first commencement address, which is an entirely different experience!
The inspiration for her speech: Over the last few years, I’ve faced a series of health setbacks and personal adversities. I’ve been forced to grow in ways that challenged me at the core — from learning how to be patient in dealing with multiple concussions, to embracing every part of my identity and learning to live my life authentically.
The message to graduates: The growth that is experienced in higher education is profound. My call in this speech is for graduates from all walks of life to identify their “growth points.” The term originated from a mentor, Dr. Mark Guadagnoli, who is bringing his approach to student growth to the UNLV Medical School. Growth points can be large or small — from garnering the courage to engage in a new experience that led to developing an untapped passion, to applying for a position that you may be underqualified for but believe you can accomplish, to pursuing a path that may be different than what’s expected. I want everyone to stop and think about their time in higher education differently.
Look within: The magic of growth points is that they’re self-reliant and always in relation to ourselves. In a culture where external validation is emphasized, the focus shifts to within — and looking within requires vulnerability and awareness, two guiding values in my life.
Making growth a habit: I chart out my growth points each morning as a part of a daily ritual. This process creates awareness and helps me be accountable. It also inspires momentum forward and confidence to continue building on these moments in the days ahead.
A day of thanks: I’m grateful to have nearly 30 family members and many friends joining me to celebrate this momentous occasion. My immediate family knows about the commencement speech, but we thought it would be a fun surprise for the rest of the family on commencement day. I’m also thankful for the time I’ve had to develop the speech with speaking expert Daniel Coyle of the UNLV Honors College; he is fantastic at his craft, an asset to UNLV, and an all-around great person.
More about Marissa
Nichols’ doctoral research has been accepted for presentations at the national level, including an NCAA-sponsored convention this summer. She has served as a teaching assistant in education and spent six years developing, implementing, and assessing the REBS Life Skills program for 450 UNLV student-athletes. She is the president of UNLV Toastmasters, an organization devoted to developing public speaking and leadership skills.
For the past decade, high schoolers across the United States have heard the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) career pitch. It’s an enticing one: Get a STEM degree. Get a higher-paying jobs. You’ll outearn other grads by $15,500 on average, according to a 2014 Department of Education report.
In Southern Nevada, officials are making that pitch in the hopes that developing the STEM workforce will spur economic development. Las Vegas is ranked 97th (among 100 metropolitan areas evaluated) in terms of employees in STEM-related fields, with 3.6 percent of the workforce compared with an 8.7 percent national average.
But once they enter college, though, students face a harsh reality check. Training for STEM fields is academically rigorous and demands study skills that many students did not acquire in high school. As a result, roughly 40 percent of those entering college as a STEM major end up either switching to a non-STEM field or not completing a degree at all. This reality is further compounded for first generation college students, who have less exposure to mentors who can help them navigate college. Unsurprisingly, they switch their majors at even greater rates.
In 2014, Matthew Bernacki, assistant professor of educational psychology and higher education, felt UNLV was in a position to change this trend.
“Prior research shows that students often abandon STEM majors after poor performance in early coursework,” he said. “That experience leaves students feeling they lack ability in the STEM disciplines, when in fact they may only lack some specific learning skills.”
Bernacki believed the key was to identify struggling students long before their grades revealed they were having trouble and to provide learning support. He wanted to dive into the student activity data in UNLV’s WebCampus learning management system for the answers.
In 2014, the National Science Foundation awarded him a three-year grant to test his strategies. Today, as the project nears completion, his results are encouraging. More of UNLV’s STEM majors his project targeted moved forward in their degree programs, achievement has improved in critical courses in math and science, and work is underway to make permanent the efforts that are producing these results.
A Three-Step Approach
The project involved partnerships with instructors of four entry-level courses: human anatomy and physiology, college algebra, calculus, and an introductory engineering course. These large lecture courses have often been called “weed-out classes.”
“That trial-by-fire mentality was all wrong,” said Carl Reiber, senior vice provost. “We’re here to teach students, not weed them out of their futures. It’s an approach that’s been proven harmful to first-generation students and underrepresented minorities in particular.”
Jenifer Utz, a professor in the School of Life Sciences, teaches freshman anatomy and physiology courses. “Some students do not achieve at their potential simply because they’re not equipped with appropriate study skills and strategies,” she said. “They’re completely capable of being successful in the course — and ultimately in the field — if they can just get past those early hurdles.”
Bernacki’s project was conducted in three phases. In the first year, he met with each instructor before the start of the semester to review the learning objectives for each class and the resources provided to students on the WebCampus course site.
Civil engineering professor Donald Hayes hadn’t thought about his introduction to engineering course from this perspective. “This opened my eyes to educational research and how it can be really helpful to us. I’ve learned a lot from him about how to organize a class,” Hayes said.
Utz adjusted her materials too, adding practice quizzes for each individual chapter. The students who regularly used the quizzes to study scored 12 percent higher on the final exam than non-users. Differences were even larger among students who entered the course with minimal prior biology knowledge. “To simply say ‘Here are some practice tests to see if you’re on track’ and then see someone’s grade suddenly jump 10 percent was impressive,” she said.
Bernacki also used that first year to observe students’ behavior in the WebCampus environments for each course. He collected data about which resources students accessed — or ignored — and when. Then he observed how students’ behaviors correlated with their grades. This would be critical information for the third year of the study.
Learning to Learn
In the second year, Bernacki studied whether a program called “The Science of Learning to Learn” could be delivered in WebCampus to improve performance. It first acknowledges the challenges students face when transitioning to college coursework. It then introduces important learning priniciples — like “retrieval practice” to improve factual information and “self-explanation strategies” to break down complex concepts — and helps students select the most appropriate strategy for their course. It trains them on behavioral strategies for managing a college lifestyle.
“It’s one thing to study, but it’s another to be aware of the correct objectives to study and to keep track that the knowledge is being learned and retained,” said one engineering student who provided anonymous feedback. “Sounds simple, but it’s something I never thought about.”
In the initial study with anatomy and physiology students, those who completed “Learning to Learn” modules after their first unit exam outperformed a control group on the next two exams. The pattern of results was replicated the next semester when students completed the modules in the first weeks of the course. A third run of the study showed similar results in math courses. College algebra students who completed the training outperformed peers (who spent equivalent time solving algebra problems) on the next two course exams.
Power of Prediction
After gathering data about students’ online behavior for the first two years, Bernacki created an algorithm to predict performance. “We’re at a point where after four weeks into the biology, three weeks into the calculus, or five weeks into the engineering course, we can identify which students are going to earn that poor outcome about 80 percent of the time,” he said.
Students typically need to pass with a B or a C in these initial courses to advance in their STEM coursework. Without prediction modeling, students may not know if they are on track to make that grade until after their first exam.
“That’s a problem because when a poor first exam grade arrives — often as late as mid-semester — it means the time available to adjust learning methods is short,” Bernacki said. “What’s worse, the first chance to perform well in the course has now been missed, which raises the stakes of the remaining exams.”
Utz added, “It can become mathematically impossible to recover a passing grade.”
Bernacki and his team created an early alert system so students know they need to change study habits. A week before their first exam, a message from their instructor reminded students about the upcoming test and proposed they use some powerful learning methods — things that had worked for students in past semesters.
They were directed to an advice page authored by real UNLV students and faculty and hosted on WebCampus. Students also were encouraged to use the “Learning to Learn” modules.
In spring 2016, more than 300 anatomy and physiology students identified as likely to struggle received the message; more than one-third beat projections and earned A’s or B’s in their course. Follow-up studies showed similar improvements in the biology course. And when applied to calculus, messaged students outperformed others predicted to struggle by nine to 15 points on all five exams.
“So far, those who get the message and take us up on the offer [of learning support] ultimately outperform those who don’t get a message,” Bernacki added. “I was pleasantly surprised that when students did what we’d hoped they would do they were as successful as we thought they could be.”
The Clicks of Academic Success
Cam Johnson can get roped into a lot of interesting projects, but the operations manager in UNLV’s office of information technology, didn’t see this one coming. In 2014, backed by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, Matthew Bernacki approached Johnson. The education professor wanted to collect student data from UNLV’s WebCampus course management system to create an early warning system for student success.
“We do work with faculty on occasion, maybe just to mentor a group or speak to a class, but we’ve never done something like this with hands-on research,” Johnson said.
His team had been working with Splunk, a system used by Fortune 100 companies to collect data and effectively organize it for searches.
“It allows us to collect data from disparate sources and make it searchable,” Johnson said — a powerful tool for organizations where systems tend to be developed over time for specific functions. These systems don’t always “talk” to each other. “First we had to answer the questions, ‘Do we have the data he needs?’ and ‘Can we curate it in a way to support his research?’” he said.
The project’s novel use of the data — it was the first time Splunk was applied to faculty research — garnered a 2016 Splunk Public Service Innovation Award. Johnson’s team developed a data modeling solution that recorded clicks within the WebCampus system. Their solution allowed Bernacki to see exactly what students are — or are not — clicking on for a course and what kinds of learning resources they accessed. They then created a model that aggregates and mines these data in order to predict each student’s success.
“One of the things we’re trying to deal with now is how to scale this out, help students graduate, and do things we know are predictive of them doing well at the university,” Johnson said. Bernacki is working to apply what he has learned to other STEM classes on campus and he hopes other institutions will learn from UNLV’s success.
“[Bernacki] saw data and found a way to interact with it,” Johnson noted. “We built a solution I wouldn’t describe as an enterprise solution, but it was a challenge and it was fascinating.”
The College of Education is committed to engaging in research and evaluation efforts that align with contemporary legislative issues. Outputs of these efforts are periodically presented to Nevada legislators to help inform work concerning education-related issues.
College of Education faculty produced ten policy papers on key legislative issues during the 2017 Nevada Legislative Session. These papers are presented to legislators and stakeholders in advance of the session, and provided non-partisan research and key conclusions.
The full journal is available here, or summaries of each of the topics are available here.
Growing up in a time and in a family where it was more important to fit into the mainstream culture than to identify with her Latinx roots, Denise Dávila, a literacy education assistant professor in the department of teaching and learning, is heartened by the communities of people who advocate for an inclusive and pluralist society. With children’s literature at the center of her research and teaching, she says her most prized possession in her office is her collection of critically acclaimed diverse and multilingual books for children.
What about UNLV strikes you as different from other places you have worked or where you went to school?
The students here. I am excited to have the opportunity to work with first-generation college students, like myself, in a highly diverse region of the country. I love my students here;I love that we can talk about bilingual and Latinx children’s literature and diversity in ways the students appreciate as we’ve shared some of the same experiences.
Also, the sense of school spirit is top-notch. My first introduction to UNLV was through the Hulu documentary series Behind the Mask, which followed the life of a student who served as UNLV’s mascot. When the show was first aired — years before I was invited to join the faculty — my spouse and I were impressed by the sense of school spirit the series captured at UNLV.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Oakland, California. I was not the only bicultural person by any stretch… but my parents wanted my sisters and me to be like everyone else. So we didn’t talk about family members speaking Spanish or practicing Latin American espiritismo.
What inspired you to get into your field?
Growing up, I never saw characters like myself in children’s books. Even now, over 85 percent of the children’s literature published year after year has featured either white children or non-human characters (e.g., animals, toys). Today, I’m really interested in analyzing the kinds of books publishers release in the marketplace. I examine the social narratives and viewpoints the books endorse. I investigate how children, families, and teachers respond to stories and illustrations that are not only inclusive of diverse characters and life experiences, but also provide counter narratives to the kinds of perspectives that have dominated the children’s books industry.
It’s been great to study children’s literature and bring research into the classroom to spark provocative conversations with students about how to use books to discuss issues of equality and/or censorship in elementary schools. And all of these conversations start in really authentic ways because everyone brings different backgrounds and experiences to the table.
What is the biggest misconception about your profession?
I think there’s this misconception that children’s literature is created in a vacuum and is disconnected from the real world. But actually, it’s a reflection of the real world — the kinds of narratives that happen in life make their way into children’s books. And more now than ever, stories are emerging that respond to sociocultural, political, and environmental conditions in the world. Many people think children’s literature scholars are mild-mannered librarian bookworm types, and that these books are just cute stories with cute pictures. But we’re not, and these books are much more than that. We’re activists, and children’s books can make statements that educate, change, and improve our world. In other words, we go beyond pretty pictures.
Insider tips for fellow Rebels?
Get to know the amazing ways that the UNLV librarians and media specialists can assist you with your research endeavors. They are invaluable in the field of children’s literature.
Tell us about a time in your life when you’ve been daring.
One of the times I was daring was several years ago when I first organized my community to stand up against an issue that would harm a neighborhood creek, and diminish the heath and safety of local families. At the time, city council members thought I was easy to dismiss. They didn’t expect that I, as a quiet person, would also have the tenacity to take the charge and lead… But I did, and we saw this issue through to a satisfactory conclusion.
What is your proudest moment?
I am honored to have been the recipient of the 2016 Alan C. Purves Award from the National Council of Teachers of English for my piece “#WhoNeedsDiverseBooks?: Preservice Teachers and Religious Neutrality with Children’s Literature.” The Purves Award is presented annually to an author judged as likely to have the greatest impact on educational practice. I am especially proud of this award because the research was inspired by my own childhood experience.
What are your hobbies?
Hiking in the beautiful local parklands of Sloan Canyon and Lake Mead with our rescued bluetick coonhounds, Frankie, Mazie, and Wally — named, not surprisingly, after story characters. We recently agreed to foster a small redtick hound, Reba, who we are hoping to place in a forever-home.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
When hiking with my hounds, people often assume that I am training them to hunt. To the contrary, I have been a vegetarian for over 20 years and have followed a 100 percent plant-based (vegan) diet for the last 10.